Black Hills Stories and Tips

Ramblings about Crazy Horse Memorial

·	Small scale model of big scale dream Photo, Black Hills, South Dakota

Even before going to see Crazy Horse Memorial, I thought it was pretty cool that his "image" was being carved into the Black Hills, if for no other reason than to give some balance to the Rushmore Four. I was mildly surprised when I learned that the sculptor wasn’t Native American, much less Lakota. When we first entered the Memorial, looked at the face in the mountain, and walked around in the very impressive Indian Museum of North America, I was enthralled. But gradually, a sense of disquiet began to encroach on my positive feelings. A sense of something being wrong here, something not quite fitting, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Plenty of Native American people, including Lakotas, seem to endorse the project. The dancers from Rapid City that perform several times a day are wonderful to watch, and their performance ends with a Circle Dance, including all in the audience who wish to participate. But while the drummer/MC is explaining the dances, the loudspeaker announcing orientation film showings and bus departures keeps drowning him out or forcing him to pause. I’m sure it’s not meant to be disrespectful, but it is. The museum is literally brimming over with breathtaking art, crafts, clothing, jewelry, and cultural items of American Indians. Most of these have been donated to the museum by individuals and tribes. As I continued to wander through the displays, and eventually through the sculptor’s log studio home where his wife still lives (Korczak died in 1982) and has her office (she is CEO of the private non-profit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation), I begin to get more of a feeling that this memorial’s existence is at least at much to glorify the memory of Korczak Ziolkowski as it is to "show the white people that Indians have great leaders, too". The line between honoring and glorifying may not be so fine.

Don’t get me wrong. The remarkable Korczak Ziolkowski and his almost single-mindedly dedicated family undoubtedly have done much good calling attention to wrongs that were done to the Lakota. A scholarship fund has provided $500,000 through 2003 for Native American students. The Foundation is affiliated with Black Hills State University, providing classes, and outreach programs for teachers and local schools. Their stated goals surpass the "mere" completion of a sculpture that will be the largest sculpted human and horse in the world. The Ziolkowski family is dedicated to higher education and improved health care for Native Americans, and long-term Foundation goals include establishing the Indian University of North America campus on the mountain, including a Medical Training Center.

Besides viewing the traditional dancers, we attended a wonderful talk and reading by oft-published and highly awarded writer Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, at the Educational and Cultural Center. Weekly lectures or performances are given here.

And yet, certain questions kept popping up in my mind…
1. Why are a white man and his descendents making a memorial to represent the great leadership of the Native American people of this nation? OK, it was explained in the orientation film that Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear invited Korczak to carve the Crazy Horse memorial back in 1939. But since that time,
2. Why hasn’t the project been transferred more to Lakota/Native American artists and put under Lakota control?
3. Why is another mountain of the Sacred Rock Nation continuing to be blown apart and reshaped to glorify human beings?
4. Why doesn’t Crazy Horse have stronger Indigenous facial features? In life, he was pure Oglala-Brule Sioux. But to me, the sculpture’s facial features look like he’s at least part White.
5. Why is Crazy Horse pointing with arm outstretched, using index finger? Most traditional Indigenous peoples would not do this. They would point using a more subtle combination of eyes, face, and lips.
6. Why does the sculpture of Crazy Horse make me feel like he is furious? After gazing at the many images of Crazy Horse on the mountain, in the Wall of Windows, on the Viewing Veranda, in the Display Room, and watching explosion after explosion in the orientation movie and video, I get an almost visceral feeling of pure and unrelenting rage that emits from "him".
7. What is this personification into rock of the supposed Spirit of Crazy Horse doing to the actual Spirit of Tashunka Witko ("his horse is crazy")? In the midst of all of this, how can his true Spirit find rest?
8. Most paradoxically of all, most historians agree that for spiritual reasons, Tashunka Witko consistently refused to allow anyone to photograph him; Korczak based his Crazy Horse’s facial features on descriptions given to him by elders who had seen him alive, and maintained that what he was attempting to represent was spirit, not form.

Indigenous American people’s opinions about the Crazy Horse Memorial vary from hearty endorsement and participation in the project, to a more middle of the road view of guarded acceptance and not questioning the elders’ decision in approaching Korczak, all the way to calling it a "desecration" and "monstrosity". Read Dorreen Yellow Bird’s column in the Grand Forks Herald for a moderate view. My Two Beadsworth provides a very thoughtful editorial on the subject. Retired professor emerita Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a Crow Creek Sioux, minces no words in her opinion of the memorial. But better yet, visit the memorial yourself, and make up your own mind.

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